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Long IslandTransportation

Treacherous commuting week fuels LIRR rider outrage over fare hike

Long Island Rail Road personnel clear snow on

Long Island Rail Road personnel clear snow on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, from the platform of the Ronkonkoma station. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A particularly treacherous commuting week that included a rush-hour service suspension, a train derailment and a punishing snowstorm fueled LIRR customers’ outrage over a planned fare hike next month.

Tuesday’s afternoon rush hour included a shutdown of service between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica because of signal problems.

Less than 12 hours later, a Huntington-bound train derailed at Jamaica station early Wednesday morning — causing cancellations and delays that would last the rest of the week.

And hampering repair efforts was Thursday’s brutal snowstorm, during which the railroad canceled more than 30 trains and experienced several delays, albeit with far few riders on the rails than usual.

The week of commuting headaches comes a month before the LIRR is set to raise fares for the sixth time in the last decade.

“What are we paying more for?” asked Jessica Mazo of Plainview, who was caught up in the derailment-related commuting chaos Wednesday — her first day back to work after a vacation. “It feels like there is no accountability within the LIRR or MTA, and none of the leadership cares at all about riders, especially those of us who commute daily.”

Babylon commuter Anthony J. Barbieri said he did not ride a train all last week that was on time, and can’t remember the last time he went a week “without some sort of cancellation, delay, [or] train taken out of service.”

“It’s ridiculous. They are never held accountable and now they are raising the fares next month,” said Barbieri, 35.

In a statement Saturday, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan defended the railroad’s performance during the storm, saying the LIRR made “strategic decisions that maximized train service while minimizing risks to customers” and employees.

“Along with hundreds of public announcements keeping customers in the loop, that aggressive yet careful approach allowed the LIRR to operate during a major storm with relatively few cancellations and without a single stranded train,” Donovan said.

MTA board member Mitchell Pally expressed sympathy for riders, but also urged them to look at the bigger picture for the LIRR — one that includes unprecedented investments in modernizing the 183-year-old railroad.

“Obviously, timing is everything. And when events like these happen together, it makes each one worse,” Pally said.

Pally said several projects in the LIRR’s pipeline should go a long way to reducing the frequency of issues like those that plagued commuters last week, including the ongoing construction of a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, a planned third track between Floral Park and Hicksville, a new link to Grand Central Terminal, the addition of positive train control crash-prevention technology, and planned expansion and modernization of the stations in Jamaica and at Manhattan.

“We have to get to that point. At that time, the Long Island Rail Road will actually be in the 21st century. And that, I think, will provide substantial benefits to the riding public,” Pally said.

Despite the difficult week, statistics show that in some ways conditions have been getting better recently for commuters.

According to LIRR figures, 92.7 percent of its trains ran on-time in 2016 — an improvement from 2015, which set a 15-year low for on-time performance at 91.6 percent. Safety-related incidents have also decreased significantly — all while ridership has soared. The railroad, which is running more trains than ever before, carried 89.3 million people in 2016, the most since 1949.

The MTA has also emphasized that the planned 4 percent fare hike only keeps up with inflation, and comes as the agency has cut $1.8 billion in annual costs.

But that doesn’t tell the full story of the railroad’s recent performance, said LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein.

Epstein criticized the LIRR for lax communication throughout the week’s disruptions, including not warning riders about possible storm-related service suspensions before they began their trips. He also raised concerns about Wednesday’s derailment being the third in four months.

In October, a work train derailed near New Hyde Park and was struck by a passenger train, injuring 33 people. Last month, a train crashed into a barrier at the end of the tracks at Atlantic Terminal, injuring more than 100 people. Nobody was hurt in Wednesday’s Jamaica derailment.

“What people care about is the day-to-day ride. And their day-to-day experiences are not positive when it comes to the railroad, whether it be delays, bad communication, or accidents. And then they’re asked to pay more money,” Epstein said.

“The riders have done their job,” he said. “There’s increased ridership. We want to support mass transit. But we’re not getting an equal response from the railroad in giving us the proper, affordable safe transportation we deserve.”

The MTA said its interim executive director provided updates on service at two news conferences held by the governor during Thursday’s storm.

Donovan defended the LIRR’s communication efforts throughout the week, saying that the railroad kept customers updated through its email alerts, website and social media accounts.

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